Dropping poison right choice

Kudos to the City of Red Deer for discontinuing the use of the poison Avatril to control pigeons at the downtown bus station. Reams of studies show Avitrol kills dogs, cats and endangered raptors that eat the poisoned birds. It also kills songbirds, the unintended targets of a ludicrous, quick-fix solution to controlling bothersome pigeons.

Kudos to the City of Red Deer for discontinuing the use of the poison Avatril to control pigeons at the downtown bus station.

Reams of studies show Avitrol kills dogs, cats and endangered raptors that eat the poisoned birds. It also kills songbirds, the unintended targets of a ludicrous, quick-fix solution to controlling bothersome pigeons.

And, in a worst-case scenario, it’s potentially deadly to humans if inadvertently ingested or absorbed through the skin, studies have warned. Because Avitrol was being used in a public place, in the city’s bustling downtown core, the risks to humans would seem a real threat.

The chemical is banned in many parts of Europe and in the City of New York. Environmental activists in the U.S. are pressing for an all-out ban.

The city should have done its homework earlier before employing Abell Pest Control of Calgary to get rid of the pigeons at a price of $7,800.

Alternative, environmentally friendly control measures are available. And it’s to its credit the city is exploring those avenues.

City officials earlier defended Avitrol’s use, saying it is important to rid Sorensen Station of pigeons because their droppings can be a health hazard. That sounded like an exaggerated pile of pigeon poop.

Carol Kelly, executive director for the Medicine River Wildlife Centre near Spruce View, said Red Deer residents should be disappointed. “(Avitrol is) highly toxic and definitely deadly and goes up the food chain to peregrine falcons,” she said. “Maybe in low dosages, some of those pigeons might recover. But I would not want to have that stuff spread around my community.”

The city’s change of heart came after reviewing “the success and concerns with our current program . . .”, said transit manager Kevin Joll.

Abell Pest Control compared the effects of Avitrol to a bad high. “It’s kind of like LSD for the birds,” a company spokesperson said.

It’s claimed that the poisoned birds send out distress cries while in the throes of a seizure, scaring away other members of the flocks.

But experts say pigeons don’t cry out.

Dr. Alex Bermudez, an avian expert at the University of Missouri-Columbia College of Veterinary Medicine says, “Avitrol causes a fairly dramatic death. Systems are shutting down and the central nervous system is shooting off unco-ordinated nerve signals.” Pigeons that survive can suffer permanent brain damage due to a rapid rise in their body temperature.

Seizures include regurgitation, disorientation, twitching, rigidity, loss of muscle co-ordination and possible cardiac arrest.

At death, the bird loses bowel control and emits bodily fluids from its digestive system. Picking up a dead pigeon under those circumstances means the person involved runs the risk of those fluids coming in contact with their skin.

While Avitrol proponents claim the poison quickly passes through the bird’s system, pigeons store a good portion of their food in a crop. The toxic food remains there and can be ingested by cats, dogs, and birds that prey on other birds.

The now defunct Avitrol Corp., formerly one of the main distributors of Avitrol in the U.S., cautioned: “Avitrol is a poison. . . . Birds that react and alarm a flock usually die. . . . Wildlife feeding on treated bait may be killed.”

The former company’s “pre-baiting directions” include that the product must not be applied where non-target birds are feeding; uneaten bait should be picked up daily; and dead birds must be buried.

In 1978, two people in the U.S. ingested the poison, believing it to be the aphrodisiac Spanish Fly. The University of Virginia Hospital saved the pair and issued a medical alert on the symptoms: “ . . . hyper excitability, salivation, tremours, muscle inco-ordination, convulsions, and cardiac or respiratory arrest.”

It’s been reported that pigeons are known carriers of 50 or more human diseases. But, according to Bermudez, the risk is minimal: “Well, maybe if you count all the different salmonellas. Pigeons carry at least three different organisms that are potential pathogens for humans. Balance that against the fact that there are many people who race pigeons and keep pigeon lofts and are still alive to tell about it. Nothing is without risk.”

And in terms of controlling flock numbers, experts claim Avitrol does the opposite. Guy Merchant, founder of the non-profit Pigeon Control Advisory Service in the United Kingdom, explains that when pigeons lose members of their flock, their instinctive response is to “breed open — endlessly” to bring the flock back up to size. In his 35 years of experience, he’s found pigeons that lose part of their flock to unnatural causes will overcompensate in breeding, increasing the flock by 10 to 20 per cent.

The City of Red Deer, in yanking the poison, proves again that it is committed to a healthy, green environment.

Rick Zemanek is an Advocate editor.

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